Eastern Connecticut State University Knowledgebase

Module 1: Designing an Online Course - Where do I start?

Article ID: 578
Last updated: 5 Apr, 2022

Designing an online course: Where do I start?

You may have heard the recommendation to start with the end in mind - the desired learning outcomes for you students.  While that's a very valid recommendation, there is more to the process than just having a solid starting point.

Learning Objectives

In this module, we describe Backward Design as a model for developing or revising online courses to improve validity, dependability, and clarity. We also discuss the first aspect of Backward Design -- learning outcomes.  By the end of this module, we hope you will be able to:

  1. Apply Backward Design to the development or revision of an online course, and
  2. write 2-4 measurable learning outcomes for that course

Table of Contents

The Makeup of an Online Course

Flexibility allows students to review lectures and complete assignments at their own pace versus on-ground where the student is required to be present at a scheduled day and time. 

Online feedback can require extensive written critique on student work submissions due to the limited amount of synchronous communication. 

Access to resources can be easily provided in an online course as a course menu link, file attachment, or a weblink (URL).  Below are a few sample resources that can be provided for students to access via a Blackboard course: 

  • ECSU Library Homepage 
  • ECSU Help Desk 
  • ECSU Office of Student Conduct 
  • Citation Guide, I.e., Perdue Owl 
  • Academic Tools 
    • Tutoring 
    • Video Lectures/Guides 
    • Study Skill Guides 
    • Writing and Grammar Guides
    • Basic Web Skills
  • Blackboard Student Help Guides

Most communication in an online course is done asynchronously, but it can also be synchronously when properly scheduled in accordance with time zones.  ECSU offers Webex and MS Teams as options to meet and discuss topics in a live virtual environment.  Below are examples of asynchronous and synchronous communication and how best they can suit the needs of the course.  Whether asynchronous or synchronous, similar to an on-ground course, it will require students to reach out to fellow peers and find common ground to build friendships and community. 

  • Asynchronous 
    • Discussion Board 
      • Used as a communication tool for students to answer open-ended questions and reply to fellow peers’ posts.  Or it can be used as a group discussion for group projects. 
      • It can also be used to provide an introduction and Q & A forum.  The introduction forum allows students to get to know each other and build a community.  As for the Q & A forum, it allows for students to reply to each other's questions regarding the course, this helps limit the number of questions a faculty member needs to reply to. 
    • Journal 
      • Allows for students to individually reflect on a weekly or daily basis or it can be used for all students to reflect as a class. 
      • NOTE: The individual Journal option is for private reflections that only the student and faculty member have access to. 
    • Blog 
      • Similar to the Journal tool, a blog allows for a student to frequently update and is intended to be shared with fellow peers.  Blogs also have a commenting feature, so that peers can respond to one another's feedback and thoughts.
  • Synchronous 
    • MS Teams (Faculty and Students) 
      • Allows faculty to schedule lectures and/or guest lectures, while also providing the opportunity to discuss course topics and material. 
      • Students can also create their own MS Team(s) to meet with fellow peers to study, work on a group project, and/or to simply connect with others. 
      • Group project presentations 
    • Webex (Faculty Only) 
      • Allows faculty to schedule lectures and/or guest lectures, while also providing the opportunity to discuss course topics and material. 
      • Group project presentations 
        • NOTE: Only ECSU Faculty are provided with Webex accounts, not students.

IMPORTANT: Please note within the following modules there will be tool links to software that will be recommended but not supported by ECSU.

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How are Online Classes Different?

If you're new to online teaching and learning, you may be wondering what it's all about. Often faculty have ideas about online classes based on what they have heard from colleagues here at ECSU or at other schools. What do you think about online classes?

Transcript of Presentation - What do you think about online classes? (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article) and HTML View of Presentation 

Additional misconceptions about online classes include:

  • You don't know your students

    Because you don't meet in-person, many faculty believe that you can't get to know your students in an online class. Experienced faculty report that they often feel they know their online students better than the students in their in-person classes. This is because students who would never speak up in a classroom can feel much more comfortable participating in an online discussion forum, where they have more time to think about what they want to say.  

  • Everybody goes at their own pace

    A standard "everyone progresses together" course is much more efficient and enjoyable for both students and faculty. This is due to the need for ongoing interaction between students, the nature of collaborative work, and the simple issue of logistics.

  • I have to be available 24/7

    Just because students may email you in the middle of the night does not mean you need to respond to them in the middle of the night. While student questions should be replied to in a timely manner, an immediate response is an unreasonable expectation for both students and faculty. Your syllabus should explain your availability and turn-around time for messages (replying within a 24 hour period is recommended) and your preferred contact method.

  • Everything has to be written

    Online courses are different from paper correspondence courses in many ways, one of which is the use of audio and video, by both instructors and students. Using phones, tablets, and webcams, faculty can interact with students asynchronously (or synchronously) from with video introductions and video-based feedback to interactive group presentations. 

Experienced voices

Experienced online instructors uncover their misconceptions over time. In an article in the magazine eLearn, Michelle Everson, a statistics instructor, shares 10 things that she learned about teaching online over the course of 5 years. While everything she shares is insightful, a few points below highlight the dissonance that some new online instructors can feel.

  • Communication can take longer

    One issue that new online instructors may not consider is that "questions that can be answered verbally in the classroom require a written explanation in the online course, and sometimes, it takes more time to write out a sensible explanation than to say it." In Blackboard, it's easy to use video or audio to explain, but, for most faculty, writing will come more naturally.

  • The workload is more diffuse

    Michelle writes that:

    "In some ways, I think the workload for an online course is similar to that of a face-to-face environment — but it seems like more work because it's not as concentrated. For example, in a classroom, an instructor may do the bulk of her work for the week while she is meeting with students, and if all students are together in one place, announcements can be made and questions can be answered for the entire class. In other words, a great deal of teaching can be done in one sitting. An activity (or several activities) can be completed during a single class period, and any issues related to that activity will be discussed in real time with the entire class. Then everybody moves onto the next thing simultaneously.

    In the online setting, though, the workload is distributed. Students will likely be working at different times during the week, and their questions will trickle in accordingly. Plus, an activity that might take 20 minutes to complete in a classroom setting might take a few days to discuss online, especially if students are not able to be online together at the same time."
  • Students want to hear from you

    When Michelle first started teaching online, she didn't participate much in student discussions. She, like many new online instructors, didn't want to stifle the students' voices in discussion, and she wanted to give them a place to work together. Student feedback showed that "the students wanted to hear more from me, if anything just to let them know they are on the right track. I now make it a point to participate more and to make sure that students know I'm there in case they need me. I cheer them on, or question them, or provide direct instruction or other examples for them to think about if they are struggling. There are many ways to participate without necessarily giving away all the answers."

Other commonly experienced differences include

  • You don't have to think of your class in terms of MWF 10-10:50 time blocks

    In an in-person class, you may regularly run out of time to finish discussing or explaining something. You may choose to start the next class by finishing the previous class session or you may choose to let it go and move on to what you had planned for the next class. In an online class, all of your explanations and examples are there in a content area for your students from the beginning so you won't run out of time. In addition, if students want to continue discussing questions related to the original topic, they can do so in its discussion forum without taking time away from the upcoming discussion in the following forum. While this isn't an open invitation to put an unlimited amount of content into the course, it does mean your students have a much better chance to work with all the topics in the course and not miss out on things that tend to "drop-off" the end of the course for lack of time.

  • Students may expect an online class to be less work than an in-person class

    Based on a long history of correspondence courses that required no active engagement or interaction, students often think online courses are simply correspondence courses online. Real online courses require both student-instructor interaction and student-student interaction on a regular basis. Students are also expected to actively engage with the content and receive frequent feedback on their progress. Online courses that don't include regular interaction and frequent instructor-initiated feedback are considered to be correspondence courses, and students will not be able to use financial aid to pay for them. Setting clear expectations upfront for both you and your students is often more important in an online class than an in-person class. 

Online Teaching Readiness Survey

Assess your Readiness to Teach Online

Teaching an online class requires additional skills that you may not normally use when teaching in-person classes. The survey from the link below will let you check your technology, pedagogy, and organizational skills and attitudes related to teaching online. 

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Course Planning with Backward Design

What is Backward Design?

backwards design components listed in the order of 1) outcomes, 2) assessment, 3) activities, and 4) content

The Teaching Online Series is designed based on the principles of backward design, a very useful model for designing courses for both online and face-to-face settings. Wiggens and McTighe, in their book Understanding by Design (2nd Ed., 2005), describe the three steps of backward design.

  1. Identify desired results. What should students know and be able to do at the end of the course? These are your learning outcomes.
  2. Determine acceptable evidence that students have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your formative and summative assessments.
  3. Plan learning experiences, instruction, and resources that will help students be able to provide evidence that they have met the learning outcomes.

Dee Fink (2013) describes the steps of backward design as making three key sets of decisions:

  1. What do you want the students to learn?
  2. How will students (and the teacher) know if they are learning?
  3. What will the teacher and students need to do for students to learn?

Alignment (Wiggens and McTighe) or integration (Fink) of desired learning outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning activities provides consistency for students and supports more accurate construction of course concepts.

It's about beginning with the end in mind. Starting with desired learning outcomes, clearly stated in measurable terms, and working backwards through assessment activities, teaching and learning activities, and content delivery. In the following video, a University of Wisconsin faculty member describes how they are using the backward design process to improve courses.

 Transcript on Educational Innovation (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

Prioritizing and Organizing

Once you have a list of desired learning outcomes for your students you may see that you have more than is practical in a single class. This is quite common for outcomes related to content coverage.  Fink (2013) identifies the heart of the issue as designing a "content-centered" course versus a "learning-centered" course.

A content-centered course is what everyone is used to - you were a student in them and you likely teach them as well. They start with a list of topics (not uncommonly based on textbook chapters) and work through them over the semester focusing on coverage.  Alternatively, a learning-centered course begins with the answer to the question "What can and should students learn in relation to this subject?" and then move forward to organize activities, assessments, and content presentation in a way that supports that learning.  

By starting from a learning-centered approach, it is easier to prioritize these content-oriented learning outcomes into three groups: the critical, the important-but-not-critical, and the nice-to-know.  As you prioritize you will normally see a structure emerging that may not be in the same order or with the same emphasis as before. You will also likely see that there is not enough time to include all of the learning outcomes you have identified. Asking yourself questions like the following can help you sort and prioritize.

  • What am I including so that students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to continue in the discipline?
  • What am I including only because it's in the textbook?
  • What am I including in my course because it's central to the discipline, included on a licensure exam, or because I would be personally embarrassed if a student left this course not knowing these things?
  • What am I including because the person who taught this course before included it? 
  • What am I including because it's something I'm really passionate about?

Once you have grouped and prioritized your outcomes you'll need to think about how to order them in the course. When you're doing this it's a very good time to also explicitly call out how the different concepts link together. These are the first steps to creating a course map. If you like to outline, you might find a table-style course map (doc, 17k) (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article) useful. As shown on the table, in addition to the following section on Learning Outcomes, the AssessmentsLearning Activities, and Content areas will also include prompts to work on sections of your course map. 

If you would like to see your course map graphically, Popplet (Links to an external site.) and Lucid Chart (Links to an external site.) provide free concept/mind-mapping tools. Below is an example using Lucid Chart to create a course map of the content for this course. A full map would also include the actual activities and assessments in context.

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Writing Good Learning Outcomes

What are Learning Outcomes?

Learning outcomes guide your course design. They are the destinations on your course map. Once you know where you're going, the other questions, "How will I know when students got there?" and "What can I do to help them get there?" become much easier to answer.  They are the formal statements describing what students are expected to learn in a course, whether for a classroom course or online. In short, they state where you want students to go (how they get there is the subject of later units). If you think of your course map as an actual map - outcomes are your destinations.

One of the major challenges of teaching online is that everything has to be more explicit than in a face-to-face course because the usual channels (your tone of voice, repeated vocal reminders, informal conversations before and after class) are absent. Online, learning outcomes express your expectations to your students. They are (hopefully) clear messages that help students know what you expect from them and what they should spend their time practicing and studying.

Learning outcomes focus on specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that you expect your students to learn, develop, or master (Suskie, 2004). They describe both what you want students to know AND be able to do at the end of the course.  If you've not thought about learning outcomes from the perspective of what students should be able to know and do before, Angelo and Cross' Teaching Goals Inventory (Links to an external site.) may be of help.

Learning outcomes need to specify student actions that are observable and measurable.  That way they can be assessed in an objective manner.  "Students will appreciate the beauty of impressionist paintings" isn't an effective learning outcome because it's not measurable.  On the other hand, "students can identify impressionist paintings and accurately describe criteria for classifying paintings in the impressionist style" is a learning outcome because you can observe and measure the students identifying impressionist paintings and describing criteria.

In addition to being observable and measurable, learning outcome statements have to focus on student action.  They are about students showing what they have learned, not about the instructor describing how they are teaching.  For example, "The students can accurately describe the process of photosynthesis" is a learning outcome while "I will show a PowerPoint presentation on photosynthesis and give the students a quiz" is not. 

Usage of the terms learning outcomes and learning objectives can vary considerably depending on the author; however, for purposes of this course, you may consider them synonymous (for consistency, we will be using learning outcomes to reinforce the importance of observable behaviors).


The following Quizlet provides some potential learning outcomes. Do the following outcome statements meet the criteria of a good learning outcome: Observable, measurable, and focus on student action? Click on the card for each outcome statement to check your answers. To have the card text read to you, simply click on the card.
Quizlet Transcript  (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

For more information, see the Quizlet website (Links to an external site.)NOTE: The Quizlet tool is currently not accessible to assistive technology.  If you choose to use it in your course please have an alternative activity in mind should it be needed. In the very least, provide a transcript with all of the information given as seen above.

How do I write good learning outcomes?

As you saw in the examples above, in their basic form, learning outcomes are typically structured as

By the end of the course, students will be able to...[verb] + [object]. 

The place where learning outcomes often fall short is the verb, the action that students will do to demonstrate their learning. Often instructors use "know" and "understand;" neither of which are directly observable or measurable. Instead, consider verbs that can measure knowledge and understanding. For example, will students writeidentify, or analyze something? Is it enough for students to be able to list the steps in the Krebs cycle or should they be able to describe the steps of the Krebs cycle? The decisions you make now have a significant impact throughout the rest of the course design process, so it's worthwhile to wrestle with the language to find the best verb to indicate what level of knowledge or skills you think students should have.

Many faculty members start their verb search with "Bloom's Taxonomy" (which was actually written by Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, and Krathwohl). The original taxonomy from the 1950s was revised in 2001. For information on the differences between the original and the revised version, Anderson and Krathwohl - Understanding the New Version of Bloom's Taxonomy (Links to an external site.) provides a nice description. Even though most instructors focus on the cognitive domain levels (Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Create), there is a second axis to the taxonomy - the Levels of Knowledge.  These include

  • Factual knowledge
  • Conceptual knowledge
  • Procedural knowledge
  • Metacognitive knowledge

Iowa State University's interactive Model of Learning Objectives (Links to an external site.) provides an interactive way to look at the intersection of the Cognitive Domain Levels and the Levels of Knowledge. If you'd like to review active verbs for learning outcomes based on Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy, Azuza Pacific University provides a list of Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy verbs (pdf, 47k). (Links to an external site.)

Fink's Taxonomy showing the intersection of caring, learning how to learn, foundational knowledge, application, integration, and human dimension to form Significant Learning

In 2003, Fink (2013) developed a "Taxonomy of Significant Learning"  (Links to an external site.) which he used in tandem with his backward design approach. This taxonomy integrates cognitive and affective areas and adds a metacognitive component.  His 6 types of significant learning are interactive but not hierarchical and would be used selectively depending on the learning outcome desired. They are:

  • Foundational Knowledge: understanding and remembering
  • Application: skills, critical thinking, creative thinking, practical thinking, and managing projects
  • Integration: connecting ideas, people, and realms of life
  • Human Dimension: learning about oneself and others
  • Caring: developing new feelings, interests, and values
  • Learning How to Learn: becoming a better student, inquiring about a subject, being a self-directed learner 

Learning Outcomes Generator

Try composing some learning outcomes for your course with the Learning Outcomes Generator. The generator below uses both Bloom's cognitive taxonomy and Fink's Taxonomy of Significant Learning. 

Practice Drafting Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes express your expectations to your students and are the source of the course's structure and organization.  

What are your learning outcomes?

This activity is a thought exercise that also allows you to see how the Blackboard Rubric tool works from a student perspective.

Write at least 3 measurable learning outcomes for the course of your choice.

Check them against the criteria on the rubric below. If you answer "no" to any of the rubric items you should revise your learning outcome. 

Write your outcomes on your course map (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article), and we will return to them in the next module.

Do we want to include this file? Learning Outcomes Rubric Transcript (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

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Resources for Learning Outcomes & Backward Design 

Additional Information

A Model of Learning Objectives: (Links to an external site.) Iowa State University - This includes a great interactive tool for exploring the different dimensions of the revised Bloom's Taxonomy. They also have the same content in a pdf handout (1.64MB). (Links to an external site.)

Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy is part of a set of three taxonomies (Links to an external site.) developed at the same time: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. For outcomes in the affective domain, Bloom's co-author Krathwhol developed an affective taxonomy focusing on learning outcomes that include emotion which can influence motivation, interest, cooperation, and teamwork. The University of Connecticut provides a table of Krathwhol's taxonomy with related verbs (pdf, 18k).  There are multiple versions of the psychomotor domain (Links to an external site.) which have been compiled for you to review and compare.

One alternative taxonomy to Bloom is Dee Fink's Taxonomy of Significant Learning (pdf, 360k). (Links to an external site.)  This is a non-hierarchical taxonomy that focuses on the interaction of 6 dimensions of significant learning.

Wiggins and McTighe's design model

Wiggins and McTighe's (2005) backward design model "Understanding by Design" (Links to an external site.) also includes a taxonomy that integrates cognitive, affective, and metacognitive components.  Their Facets of Understanding are also non-hierarchical and indicate different types of understanding. The instructor would select that appropriate facets based on the desired learning outcome. Their 6 facets are:

  • Explain concepts, principles, and processes by putting it their own words, teaching it to others, justifying their answers, and showing their reasoning.
  • Interpret by making sense of data, text, and experience through images, analogies, stories, and models.
  • Apply by effectively using and adapting what they know in new and complex contexts.
  • Demonstrate Perspective by seeing the bigger picture, recognizing different points of view and offering critical analysis
  • Empathize by perceiving sensitively and taking alternative perspective with an honest attempt at walking in another's shoes/
  • Show Self-Knowledge by perceiving personal styles, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede their own understanding; they are aware of what they do not understand and why understanding is so hard.
  • Identifying Significant Learning Outcomes (Links to an external site.): Illinois State University - This offers an overview of learning outcomes for transformational learning goals.
  • Writing Learning Outcomes Handbook (pdf, 402k) (Links to an external site.): Texas Tech University - This guide includes how to write learning outcomes, examples of course learning outcomes, and methods for assessing learning outcomes. It also has worksheets to help you develop expected learning outcome statements and plans for assessing the expected learning outcomes.
  • Blackboard has a built-in Outcomes Tool that allows you to set up and track student outcomes in your course. For more information, please see the Blackboard Outcomes Instructor Guide (Links to an external site.) and your local teaching and learning center.


Biggs, J. B. (2003).  Aligning teaching for constructing learning. (pdf, 64k)  (Links to an external site.)The Higher Education Academy whitepaper.

Fink, D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass: 

Krathwol, D. A. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview Theory Into Practice, 41(4). 

Mercado, C. A. (2008). Readiness assessment tool for an elearning environment implementation (pdf, 99k). Fifth International Conference on eLearning for Knowledge-Based Society, Bangkok, Thailand.

Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company

Wiggens, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

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Article ID: 578
Last updated: 5 Apr, 2022
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